The Catholic Left Meets in Philadelphia

Deal W. Hudson
July 15, 2008

The Convention for the Common Good was held in Philadelphia over the past weekend. When I wrote about the gathering in early April, Catholics Organize to Elect Obama, one of its co-sponsors wrote to me saying that I had mischaracterized their “non-partisan” effort to bring Catholics together to discuss public policy. Further, they told me I was welcome to attend.

I chose to decline, for reasons I’ll explain.

The political preferences of the co-sponsors – Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby – are clearly for the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama.

Alexia Kelley, the founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, was the religious outreach director for the Democratic National Committee during the Kerry campaign. Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by a group of 47 Catholic sisters in 1971, which lobbies Congress on everything but abortion. Bill Donohue has written recently about both organizations as part of the Catholic Left “boxed in by abortion.”

In my view, the Convention for the Common Good was going to be nothing more than an extended diatribe against President Bush, the Republican Party, and John McCain. If this had been an invitation to a real discussion before open minds, I would have been happy to attend, but I was not interested in providing “bi-partisan” cover for their convention “platform,” wholly in conformity with the Democratic Party.

According to a recent college graduate who attended the conference all day on Saturday, my expectations were largely realized. I asked her if anything positive was said about the Republican Party, Bush, or McCain. “Absolutely nothing,” she reported. She added that Bush, the GOP, and Vice President Cheney were continually lambasted: “They seemed to hate Cheney even more than Bush!”

Two Republicans, however, did make an appearance. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) sent a video saying he “wished he could be there.” And former one-term Congressman Charley Dougherty (R-PA) discussed politics with E. J. Dionne, a Democratic pundit. Dougherty served in the early 1980s and helped to establish the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. He did not talk about abortion with Dionne but did chastise the audience for not respecting the office of president and vice president.

Both presidential candidates were invited to attend, and both were encouraged to send representatives and/or videos. Obama sent in a video, but neither campaign sent a representative. In addition, the singer-activist Bono was seen in a video talking about AIDs in Africa.

The audience of about 700 was largely older, “Almost everyone was over 60; out of 700 only about 30 were any younger.” When she asked one of the organizers about the lack of young adults, she was told, “It’s quality, not quantity.”

Another organizer said that most of the participants were nuns, recruited for the conference by Network – they were the “low-hanging fruit” she was told. In looking over the registration list, I would estimate that 25% or more of the attendees were sisters. If any of the older women there were religious, you would not have known it by their dress. She saw one woman in a habit of eating breakfast at the hotel but didn’t know if she was attending the conference.

The Iraq War was brought up repeatedly. She reported that many people she heard speak didn’t think a Just War was even possible. A staffer of Sen. Bob Casey speaking to a break-out session on war and peace said, “You probably don’t believe in the principles of a just war as found in Aristotle,” and everyone started cheering. Another speaker, an Iraqi war veteran, suggested ways to keep young men and women from being recruited by the United States armed forces.

The booths outside the meeting contained no materials from either the GOP or conservatives. The non-profit Matthew 25 Project booth had a picture of Obama next to an open letter of support with a long list of signatures. She said the way the picture was hung next to Matthew 25:35 – “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat” – made Obama “look like he was Jesus.”

Another booth offered literature on the gay, lesbian, and transgendered lifestyle. One booklet was entitled, A Catholic Defense of Same-Sex Marriage. A newspaper in the same booth, Bondings, published by New Ways Ministry of Mount Rainier, MD, had a full page list of “gay-friendly” parishes throughout the country. My source never heard any mention of the nationwide debate over gay marriage at the conference.

The activist atmosphere of the meeting was in evidence when a teacher from a Christian Brothers high school in New Jersey stood up to say she was doing all she could to influence her students who came from affluent families. She said she had to be careful and quiet in order “not to upset donors or alums.”

According to my source, the drumbeat of the conference was the phrase “vote the common good.” I asked her what that meant to those who used it. She said, “From what I heard it meant some very specific things – universal health care, ending the Iraq War, eliminating poverty, and stopping global warming. It surprised me how much they were concerned about global warming,” she added.

Many clergies were in attendance, but only a few were in collars. One former prelate who lent his support was Bishop Walter Sullivan – a popular fixture on the Left.

When the platform was voted upon, the audience was given green, white, and red cards. They were told to hold up green for agreement, red for disagreement, and white for uncertainty. Every plank received unanimous support. It was announced that an amendment to support the ban on partial-birth abortion was going to be introduced at a later time, but it was never put up for a vote.

This is just another instance of what Bill Donohue means when he says the Catholic Left is “boxed in by abortion.” The Catholic supporters of Obama share the same dilemma: How to ignore the non-negotiable teachings of the Church while appearing not to. One way is to employ high-minded language like “common good” without paying any attention to its most fundamental human right: life.

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